The British in Europe: A Brexit Reading List

10 Books by and about Brits on the Continent

With the British people voting to leave the European Union, world markets in tailspin, nativism on the rise, leadership faltering, and recriminations and regret dominating the international conversation, it seems the long and fruitful relationship between Britain and the continent may be coming to an end, at least in its current form. We decided, then, to take a look at some of the literary bounty of that relationship: books by and about Brits in Europe.

Nothing seems to inspire the British quite so much as getting off the island. From the Grand Tour to the Romantics to servicemen, black marketeers and modern-day expats, the British have always enjoyed their freedom of movement across the continent, those more or less open borders and the liberation of being far away from home and its many burdensome customs.

Here’s a list of 10 books by and/or about the British in Europe. (Coming soon, a reading list from the canon of transplants to Britain…)

1. A Time of Gifts

by Patrick Leigh Fermor,

The ultimate memoir of vagabond youth. A young Patrick Leigh Fermor sets out on foot from London to Constantinople. Along the way, he relies on the kindness of strangers, from innkeepers to barge masters to aristocrats. Fermor was quite possibly, the most interesting, charming Brit of all time.

2. Reflections on a Marine Venus

by Lawrence Durrell

One of Durrell’s many travelogues, each of them learned, engaging and evocative. After World War II, during which Durrell traveled the Mediterranean as a press attaché, he secured a posting in Rhodes, took up residence in a Turkish cemetery, and wrote this poignant account of his stay.

3. The Third Man

by Graham Greene

Yes, this isn’t Greene’s finest work (it was written as a novella in anticipation of the screenplay he was penning for Carol Reed’s great film noir), but the atmosphere — dark, lawless, ominous Vienna — is spot on, and combining the reading with the movie-viewing creates a special kind of Euro-alchemy.

4. As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning

by Laurie Lee

Lee’s memoir recounts his busking days in London and Spain, when he lived hand to mouth in villages across the countryside, playing the violin outside cafés and sleeping in whatever inn, barn or open field would have him. When Civil War broke out in 1936, Lee returned to England, but only for a short while, as he found himself drawn back to Spain, and the fight to come.

5. A Room With a View

by E.M. Forster

Turn-of-the-century Brits mingle in the grand cities of Italy hoping to find love and hoping to one day have their love stories made into a Merchant-Ivory film featuring a young Daniel Day-Lewis. That timeless romance.

6. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

by John Le Carré

Another tale of geopolitical tension and intrigue for the Brits in Mitteleuropa. Le Carré’s breakthrough remains, a half century later, a cultural touchstone and the gold standard for espionage thrillers. This one is a cat-and-mouse, double agent story out of newly-divided Berlin. It was a time when a new European war seemed all but inevitable.

7. Murder on the Orient Express

by Agatha Christie

Here we expand (not bend) the rules slightly, but with good reason. Christie’s Hercule Poirot, once a detective with the Brussels police force, then a refugee settled in England, is one of fiction’s best-loved characters. And in perhaps his most famous mystery — Murder on the Orient Express — you’ll recall that the crime is committed at 12:37am in Vinkovci, Croatia.

8. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimmage

by Lord Byron

The birth of the Byronic hero, the epic poem that launched a thousand disaffected, privileged youth on their jaunts from Britain across Europe.

9. Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley

Shelley’s tale of the Promenthean monster isn’t about Brits, of course, but the Shelleys famously left the homeland for the continent, and one summer, on the shores of Lake Geneva they decided, along with Lord Byron and John Polidori, to put on a contest to see who could write the best horror story…

10. In altre parole

by Jhumpa Lahiri

Lahiri considers herself American (she was raised in Rhode Island), but she was born in London, and frankly, her recent transformation is too on-the-nose not to include here. After a long residence in Italy, the award-winning novelist wrote her latest book, a memoir, in Italian. She says she finds her writing to be “more essential” and her thoughts “less inhibited” in the language she has been ardently studying for years.

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